A goal of every fringe political movement is to put a mainstream facade over half-baked ideas. These days, some on the right try to appropriate the words and philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr. to justify their clutter of reckless thoughts and actions.
It’s a tough sell. Murder silenced King almost 54 years ago, but the rich record of his actions, speeches, sermons, essays and books lives on and refutes most of the wilder claims of today’s conservatives.
King was not opposed to the government helping those mired in poverty. He would not be likely to buy into the ginned-up alarm the right has been sounding about efforts to portray the history of Black America more honestly. He rejected the soulless philosophies of fascism and communism, but he also called America out for failing to live up to its own ideals. When he said people should be judged on the content of their character, he wasn’t suggesting we ignore still-relevant effects of slavery or the not-so-well-hidden examples of contemporary racism.
King was 39 when he died in 1968; if he had lived, he would be turning 92 Saturday. If he was in good health, he would no doubt still be among those leading the national conversation.
“This holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., sees a nation embroiled in conflicts that would have looked numbingly familiar to him,” the New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb observed last week.
But using the long-dead to settle current arguments is a hollow quest, no matter your ideology.
We can better honor King by continuing to apply the lessons he taught during the remarkable arc of his brief life.
Those on the right who would use violence and those on the left who might respond in kind should consider how King and the modern civil rights movement found a more effective way to bring change to America.
We’ve recently seen what happens when those who feel shut out of power respond with violence. King rejected such solutions. He wanted to move people’s hearts and minds through reason and compassion.
Folk singer Joan Baez witnessed a revealing moment when she visited King’s headquarters during the voting rights crusade in Selma, Alabama, in 1965.
“There were white Ku Klux Klanny types out front, protesting his being in town,” Baez recalled in a 2003 interview. “And some of the black kids were furious. They were shouting at them.
“King said, ‘You know, if you do that, we’re just not gonna have a movement. They’re people. They’re people like us.’ ”
King’s determination to avoid demonizing his opponents no doubt sprang from his spiritual beliefs, but it harmonized with a secular goal. King believed that human problems – civil rights, poverty, violence among individuals and nations – were best solved by agreement and unity, not discord.
Thus King never missed an opportunity to emphasize our shared values as a nation – to offer us his vision of America at its best.
Discussing rights, he once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Discussing war, he said, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
Today, such wisdom could apply just as well to any consequential political or social disagreement – including today’s national divisions over COVID, racism, income disparity and the future of democracy.
Indeed, though it’s difficult to imagine King wearing a MAGA hat, it’s possible he would find the slogan attractive. King believed we could make America great by living up to its ideals of freedom, justice and human equality. In some sense, don’t most of us still agree with that?
Tim Harmon is a retired editorial writer for The Journal Gazette.